Myths of Crete

Myths of Crete

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Many of the best-known Greek myths are set in the island of Crete. At its peak, the Minoan civilization (2000 – 1450 BC), and together, the island of Crete, was the dominant force in the East Mediterranean. It maintained control of the seas in the region, and so managed to diffuse and exert influence on various regions around the Mediterranean. It is believed that some of these myths and identities from the early Minoan religion, found their way later into the Greek pantheon: the Gods of Olympus. The oldest story concerns the birth of Zeus, Father of Gods and men.

The Birth of Zeus

The birth of Zeus is one of the most well-known myths that is set on the island of Crete. According to the story, Kronos (son of Ouranos – Sky – and Gaia – Earth) married his sister Rhea and brought many children into the world. But Kronos, scared by a prophecy that he would lose his throne to one of his children, swallowed all the newborns – in an attempt to avoid Fate. Rhea, at this point pregnant with Zeus, could not stand to watch more of her children being consumed and managed to escape to the island of Crete where she could give birth in secret. This is how Zeus was born in a cave in the mountains of Crete. To this day the exact location is contested with some pointing to Psychro on Mount Dicti, while others to Idaion Cave on Mount Ida.

The task of protecting and nurturing the infant fell to the Idaian Dactuloi, the Kourites and the goat-nymph Amalthea as well as three other nymphs and various other creatures. The story goes that the Kouretes performed their war-dance, clashing their swords on shields, and stomping on the ground as hard as they could, to cover the crying of the infant Zeus. It is not certain whether Amalthea was a goat or nymph, but she provided the necessary nourishment for the baby boy to grow. They also positioned his cradle so that it hung from a tree, so that it didn’t touch the earth, sky or sea and could avoid the watchful eye of Kronos who ruled all three. Meanwhile, Rhea returned to Kronos and presented him with a stone in swaddling clothes, that Kronos swallowed believing it was the infant Zeus. Later, Zeus took revenge on his father and managed to free his siblings, Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon.

The Cave of Zeus

Zeus, Europa and the Birth of Minos

This myth of Zeus and Europa carries historical significance – reflecting Crete’s connections with the East. In a way, it seeks to explain how Crete, with its prehistoric ties to Asia Minor, Syria, the Levant (Phoenicia) and Egypt also acquired a European dimension. According to the myth, Zeus fell in love with Europa, the daughter of the King of Phoenicia. Maddened by his desire, Zeus sought to seduce the girl, so he could claim her for his own. To accomplish his plan, he turned himself into a handsome white bull and positioned himself next to where Europa was playing, near the beach. Trusting the bull, Europa soon came and sat on his back at which point, Zeus sank at once into the waves and swam over to Crete. Europa became the first queen of Crete and their union was consummated in the shade of a plane tree at Gortyn. Europa and Zeus had three sons, Minoas (Minos), Rhadymanthys and Sarpedon. Later, Europa married Asterios and raised all their children together.


Minos, the kingship of Crete and the Birth of the Minotaur

Minos could just as well be regarded as the honorific title given to the king of Knossos, and eventually, all of Crete – similar to how Pharaoh is used in Egypt. The name Minos symbolized strong leadership and divinely-inspired law and order. After the death of Asterios, Minos, the son of Zeus and Europa, wished to succeed him on the throne. Meeting objections from the Cretans, he asked the god Poseidon, his uncle, for a sign of divine intervention, so that everyone could see that he had the support of the Gods. Poseidon sent a beautiful white bull from the sea – expecting Minos to sacrifice the creature after ascending to the throne as a way of acknowledging the help. However, Minos was bewitched by the beauty of the beast and did not want to lose it, thus he kept it at Knossos. Poseidon, now angered, sought revenge; he made Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, fall madly in love with the bull. At the queen’s command, Daedalus, the master craftsman of the palace, made a hollow wooden replica of a cow – and told the queen to place herself inside. The bull was deceived and mated with the wooden cow. Nine months later Pasiphae gave birth to a monster, a human with the head of a bull. The famed Minotaur that lived in a labyrinth constructed by Daedalus.

The Minotaur

This myth revolves around a toll imposed as a punishment by King Minos on Athens by which 14 young men and women became prey to the Minotaur. Some accounts say this happened every year, while according to others the practice reflected certain lunar phases and took place every 7 or 9 years. The myth reflects on both the Minoan ‘sport’ of bull-leaping and the influence Knossos wielded in southern Greece. This is also arguably the most famous of all the myths associated with ancient Crete. The story begins when a son of Minos, Androgeos, went to Athens to compete in a tournament. A fine athlete, he won first place in all the events – inciting the jealousy of King Aegeus of Athens. Blinded by his rage, he ordered his men to ambush Androgeos on the road to Megara – where he was slain.

Once Minos heard of his son’s death, he attacked Athens and imposed his harsh terms of surrender that required 7 young men and 7 young women to be chosen by the Athenians and sent to Crete as a sacrifice to keep the rest of Athens safe. The young men and women were thrown into the Labyrinth – a huge structure with spiraling and interconnecting paths built by Daedalus, under the Palace itself. This vast and intricate labyrinth was built in such a way, that once inside no-one could escape. Worst of all, at the center lurked the Minotaur – hungry for flesh!

Theseus and the Death of the Minotaur

Athens dutifully paid its tribute for many years, until the day Theseus, son of Aegeus, volunteered to take the place of one of the seven youths. Theseus wanted to free the Athenians from this humiliating punishment and kill the Minotaur. As soon as Theseus stepped ashore, he encountered Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, who fell in love with him. Enraptured and wanting to help, Ariadne turned to Daedalus for help – who once again found a solution and devised a plan to enable the Athenians to escape. The plan was very simple; on entering the Labyrinth, Theseus would take with him a skein of thread, tie it to the door and unreel the thread as he passed along the twisting corridors so he could mark his path. Theseus did as instructed; he navigated the labyrinth, managed to slay the Minotaur and escaped by rewinding the thread and returning to the exit.


Daedalus and Icarus

If the Labyrinth symbolizes the Palace of Knossos and all its architectural complexity, then its creator – Daedalus, the wise engineer and craftsman – characterizes the amazing technical feats the Minoans achieved. Of course, it wasn’t long until Minos discovered the role that Daedalus had played in the escape of Theseus and gave orders for him and his son Icarus to be thrown into the Labyrinth. Father and son were imprisoned and condemned to a slow death. This is when the two devised a plan to escape using a pair of wings fashioned from bird-feathers, that they fastened to their shoulders using wax. Their plan was a success but Icarus disregarded his father’s instructions and flew too close to the sun. The wax melted, the wings dropped off and Icarus plunged to his death, in the cold waters of the Aegean Sea, near present-day Ikaria. According to another story, Icarus dropped from the sky near Sicily, where his father, overwhelmed by grief, lived out his days. The expression “don’t fly too close to the sun” is a reference to the story of Daedalus and Icarus and a warning against being overly overconfident.